© Romy Blumel

Short story: The Sofa by Salley Vickers

"They had escaped Hitler at the eleventh hour with a few portable heirlooms and a bag of uncut diamonds"
March 26, 2015
Salley Vickers is a novelist, poet and short story writer, who is interested in the connections between art, literature, psychology and religion. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, was an international bestseller when it was published in 2000. Her latest book—from which the story below, “The Sofa”, is taken —is the collection The Boy Who Could See Death.Commenting on the “The Sofa”, Vickers says: “This story arose out of an actual experience. An old friend was planning to get rid of a sofa which had belonged to his mother, of whom I was very fond. I took the sofa from him out of affection for her. She was a Jewish refugee and there are parallels between the story of her family fleeing the Nazis and that of the characters in this story, although the weirder elements are purely my own invention.”

When my mother died, I decided to move into the Hampstead flat that had belonged to my parents. My wife, Jennifer, and I were divorcing and I was con-cerned about where I should live. To move into my old family flat would save me the expense of renting, or another mortgage; and it would offer my children a familiar place to come and stay.

My father had died some years earlier and my mother had lingered on in the flat, more and more resembling some pale moth fluttering frailly across the soft carpeted floors of the dimly lighted rooms. Towards the end, she rambled a bit about her childhood, which had been a hard one, so it was no surprise it was still on her mind. Once she mistook me for her brother Max, who was long gone by this time.

My parents, to my mind, had been an archetypal couple: my father, an amiably aggressive, enterprising man, had made his name, and a modest fortune, as a solicitor dealing in company law. The precise details of his work bored me; and it hurts me to confess that I have as misty a notion now of quite what it was that he did as I had as a callow young man. Whatever it was, it ensured for my brother and me what used to be called “a good edu-cation,” comfortable holidays abroad and sufficient spare funds to allow our father to look rueful when we overdrew our bank accounts but always to come up with the means to make good the deficits. My mother served whatever needs my father had to make this enterprise run smoothly. She fed him, listened attentively to the daily details of his working life, absorbed his tempers and nursed him faithfully in his last years when he became demented.

Over the dementia I fear I was a broken reed. My elder brother, Simon, as always, put me to shame. He visited our parents dutifully, read to my father from his beloved Conan Doyle and Swinburne, and allowed my mother to shed occasional tears without the swift instinctive aversion with which I always met such displays.

But then, I was my mother’s child, the favoured younger son. Parents are not supposed to have favourites, but, as all children know, they do. “Ah,” my mother would sigh, when she believed I was out of earshot, “Simon has his father’s brains, but Nathan is the sensitive one. He takes after my side of the family.”

My mother’s “side of the family” were refugees from Belgium. They had escaped Hitler at the eleventh hour with a few portable heirlooms and a bag of uncut diamonds, rescued from the premises of my grandfather’s diamond cutting business. The diamonds had been entrusted to my mother’s younger brother, Max. It was considered that a tow-headed five--year-old would be the least likely target for a Gestapo spot check, and the prize specimens of my grandfather’s business were sewn into the lining of Max’s trousers.

Somewhere along the fraught journey to safety, the bag sprang a leak; so that by the time the family reached England—chastened, at their changed fortunes, yet jubilant at their successfully negotiated escape—only one lump of diamond rock was found to have survived. My uncle-to-be had seemingly been leaking diamonds as the family made their way across occupied France—first in the Daimler, donated by a valued Antwerp customer, and then on the rickety boat that, with his last handful of hard currency, my grandfather had bought in order to cross the Channel to freedom.

My uncle never got over this calamity. Aside from his immediate family he was incapable of relationships, remaining single until he died, a prisoner of tyrannical and implacable obsessions. Relentless handwashing, incessant closing and reclosing of doors, checking and rechecking of locked windows, counting the precise number of footsteps it took him to walk down the hall was too full time an activity to allow space for another person’s ordinary anxiety. The pale lanky relic of that small scared boy could never again risk failing another’s trust.

But as a boy myself I was fond of my uncle. My brother and I would be sent to visit him in his house in Finchley. We played, rather inhibitedly, in his garden, knocking conkers from the horse chestnut tree, and sometimes Uncle Max would play the piano for us, Schubert and Chopin and Schumann and just occasionally, when he was in one of his rare moods of mirthfulness, jazz.

We sat on his stoutly upholstered yellow Chesterfield while he played and I used to push small items down the back of it, checking to see if they were still there on any following visit. They always were; Uncle Max, for all his obsessionalism, was not house proud.

After the war, my grandfather started a successful importing business. There was no need to cash in the sole survivor of the family’s earlier fortunes, and the diamond was cut, by my grandfather, into a magnificent many-faceted brilliant, which was splendidly displayed on my grandmother’s strong red hand till the day she died. It was willed to my mother. Unlike my grandmother, my mother wore the diamond only on special occasions. Indeed, as a child I came to recognise “an occasion” by the diamond’s reappearance. I would watch it glinting in its cleansing soak: a glass of gin, to “bring up the shine,” as my mother said. She tipped the gin down the sink afterwards with some reluctance. “Seems a shame,” she would say, “but I couldn’t risk your father catching something from it.” She herself drank nothing stronger than sherry.

Then, one day, the diamond disappeared. My mother went frantic with worry. She had worn it, she remembered—how could she forget?—at Uncle Max’s funeral. Several female relatives, reconvened from far-flung distances for the event, had enthused over the ring and my mother had reminded them of the story. “Poor Maxie,” she had said, wiping her eyes. “How he sobbed when we discovered the diamonds had gone. He never got over it, you know? He didn’t even like to see me wear this one.” Thoughtfully, she twisted the ring round her slight finger. Unlike her own mother, my mother had the smallest hands. But after Maxie’s funeral, she told us, plaiting her fingers in consternation, she had put the ring away—sheknew she had—as she always did, in the green leather velour-lined box, where she kept her few bits of jewellery. She would have known for sure if it were missing at the time.

For a good while, the missing ring was a conundrum. Our cleaner, Mrs Bevis, the window cleaner, Steve, passing tradesmen, even family friends were anxiously considered as likely candidates for jewel robbers. But my mother’s history had prejudiced her in favour of a benign universe, and even with evidence of wrongdoing she disliked harbouring “uncharitable thoughts.” In the end, she persuaded herself that a magpie had taken the ring—the time she took the box out to look for her pink pearls and got interrupted by the Kleen-Eezy man. The story didn’t convince the rest of us, but it seemed kinder to let her continue with this far-fetched explanation unmolested.

When Uncle Max’s will was read, it turned out he had left his money, quite a tidy sum, to a Jewish pro-Palestinian charity. There were very few “effects.” The piano was to go to my brother, I had an unremarkable picture of some cows drinking, and my mother was left the yellow velvet Chesterfield, by this time very shabby and much in need of repair. My mother was not best pleased about the money. Not that she ever wanted it for herself. “You could have done with some of that money,” she said to me, when she had finally accepted that Jennifer and I were going to divorce. “You’re not going to give her the house as well, are you?”

The cost of having my uncle’s legacy restored proved to be over £2,000. My father, ever pragmatic, wanted to chuck the sofa out; but family sentiment reigned supreme in my mother. “I can’t,” she said. “It wouldn’t be right. Poor Maxie. He never got right after losing those diamonds. I’ll cover it with a throw and some nice cushions. You won’t be able to see the holes.”

It was an irony, then, that in my father’s last years it was the Chesterfield he took to lying on, his once sturdy limbs covered by his dressing gown, mumbling, or starting at inaudible voices. My mother would sit with him, her small hand in his big, freckled one, never seeming to resent that the man who had protected her all her adult life had become a helpless baby. On one of my too rare visits she told me: “You know, Natty, I fell asleep holding Arthur’s hand and I woke in the night, not knowing where I was and I thought it was Max lying there.”

“Well, it is Max’s sofa,” I said.

“I suppose that’s it. Funny thing, he was crying and saying sorry—it was as if he were a little boy again and had lost those diamonds. He never got over those diamonds.”

When I moved into the flat I put off dealing with my parents’ things for several months. The process of divorce, and the move itself, had taken it out of me. And I knew I was going to have to steel myself to dispose of my mother’s accumulated pickings. In the end, I schooled myself to do it room by room: mountains of china were carted to charity shops, one or two plates fetched a dispiritingly small sum at auction; books were sent to hospitals; my brother’s children bagged the best of the furniture; and I gave Jennifer the one painting of value that my mother had bought. It was a good idea, for it took some of the sting out of what we had been through and I never cared for it myself. She came over to fetch it and we stood in the sitting room, where we had often stood together in the days when we felt we might make things work between us.

“What are you going to do with this?” she inquired, gesturing at the sofa. It was not only worn by now, it looked sinisterly stained.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’d really like to chuck it out but—”

“But sentiment forbids?” Jennifer laughed, though not unkindly. My mother’s attachment to her family had been a sore point between us.

“I’ll think about it,” I said, a little stiffly. I felt that at least I no longer had any need to justify my own sentiments to Jennifer.

Two days later I met Ella Wheelwright in Sainsbury’s. I’d not seen her for 20 years, not since we’d been at university together, but in all those years there was prob-ably not a month when I hadn’t thought about her. She looked much the same. Unusually upright, and with fine fair hair and freckles.

“Hello, darling,” she said, as if we had parted that morning. “I saw you shopping here the other day and yelled, but you ignored me.”

“I would never ignore you, Ella,” I said.

“Well, darling,” she said. “Here we are in Sainsbury’s. What would you like to do?”

I asked her back to the flat for coffee, and really only to say something—because I was at a loss where to start after all this time—I showed her the sofa, describing its history. “I think I’ll have to throw it out,” I said.

“Oh, you mustn’t.”

“Why not?” I rather hoped she would rescue it from me and relieve me from the responsibility. Ella Wheelwright was like that.

“It’s your history,” she said. “You can’t throw out your history. Even that.” She was looking at one of my father’s more intimate stains.

“I know,” I said. “You’re right.” That was the thing about Ella Wheelwright. She tended to be right. I was as good as my word—or the word I’d tacitly given to Ella—and two weeks later I cleared the room so that the gloomy sounding Irish upholsterer, whom Ella had found for me, could take the sofa off in his van. Waiting for the sofa’s redeemers I sat on it, and tried to recall Uncle Max playing Schubert. And then I remembered the plastic khaki-coloured soldier it had been my habit to post down the sofa’s sides. I reposted him every visit we made, and I had no recollection of ever having recovered my toy from its hiding place. It seemed unlikely he had survived so long undiscovered, but nonetheless I pushed exploring fingers down. The inevitable old biro, paper clips, a rubber band and, yes, something small and light. I pulled it out, along with a good deal of fluff, and looked at it in my hand. Winking in the sun, which was striking the window, was my mother’s diamond.

And when Ella rang me a few days later I sort of knew what she was going to say. Even for her, she sounded excited. “Darling, listen. You won’t believe this, but Mick has just found a bag of stones in the innards of your uncle’s sofa. He thinks they’re uncut diamonds.”